Over handfuls of popcorn in Lincoln Square cinemas recently, I saw the movie American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell. Winner of a Golden Globe and nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, American Hustle refurbishes the story of ABSCAM, a late 1970s FBI sting operation. With bated breath, I watched FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) force con artists and lovers Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to participate in his sting operation, which begins as an attempt to catch a few bigger fish in the seedy con artist world. The plot, however, quickly thickens. Both missteps and the operation itself ensnare bigger and bigger fish, leading to corruption charges against prominent politicians and the most powerful mob boss in the country. Subplots unfurl throughout. It is Prosser who takes the fall when Agent DiMaso exposes her and Rosenfeld. Deeply in love with Rosenfeld, she begs him to leave the country with her; but he refuses, wanting to remain near his son. And while he tries to handle his unpredictable wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), Prosser vacillates between the love and attentions of Rosenfeld and Agent DiMaso. Simultaneously, Rosenfeld finds a true friend and honorable person in one of the politicians he is scheming to indict. Sound like an entangled story? It is. Who is really guilty and who is innocent? Whom does Prosser really love and whom is she deceiving? Will Rosenfeld and Prosser get out alive, and just how, oh how, does it end??
Perhaps this doesn’t recall classical lines from the Satires of Horace, Poem 64 of Catullus, or the dactylic hexameter of Homer. Or does it? Wringing my hands through the suspense of a whirlwind plot with nuanced characters in difficult predicaments, one classical work in particular kept coming to mind: Medea, written by Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic philosopher, in the first century CE.
The story of Medea, one of the earliest in Greek myth, was well known by the ancients and written down in several forms, including Euripides’ Medea in the fifth century BCE. Seneca’s Medea features Medea and Jason (of the Argonauts), lovers living in exile in Corinth with two sons. They have quite a history: Medea, a foreign sorceress from Colchis in the Black Sea, has used her skills in magic to save Jason several times, most recently having plotted the murder of Jason’s evil uncle, Pelias. The Senecan tragedy begins in media res (“in the middle of things”): Pelias’s son comes seeking revenge on Jason, Medea, and the city of Corinth. In order to seek protection, Jason has sought out the marriage of Creusa, the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. Medea is heartbroken and furious.
More and more characters become entangled in an already volatile situation. Creon banishes Medea from Corinth and Jason confirms that he is leaving her for Creusa. Medea wishes to flee with their two sons, but Jason forbids her from taking them. Her anger, love, and pain mix and meld together, finding release on shifting persons. After setting fire to the royal palace, and thus killing Creusa and Creon, the focus of Medea’s jumbled emotions shifts to her sons. She kills one of them; and, as Jason approaches, she climbs to the roof of the house and kills the other in his sight. As the story ends, she absconds in a chariot drawn by dragons.
American Hustle is not necessarily a modern-day Medea; however, looking at American Hustle through the lens of Medea highlights some interesting counterpoints between the two works, which, I think, reveal the enriching power of the Classics. Both American Hustle and Seneca’s Medea provide a glimpse into the ever-shifting nature of human emotion and identity. Banished by Creon and cast aside by Jason, Medea writhes through feelings of love, loss, and ire. The chorus notes, “Her cheeks are red and inflamed, / then the red is displaced by pallor; / she keeps no colour for long, / her appearance ever shifting. / She paces to and fro, / as a tigress robbed of her children / roams in a raging onrush / the Ganges’ wooded banks. / Medea cannot rein in / her feelings of love or anger. / Now anger and love have joined their forces: what will follow?” (chorus, ll 858 – 69). Medea’s identity shifts as quickly as her emotions, from devoted paramour to scorned lover to caring mother to enraged revenger. One minute her sons must pay the penalty for their father’s crimes; the next, she acknowledges they are innocent: “MEDEA: Why do you vacillate, my spirit? Why are tears wetting my face, and anger leading me to shift in one direction, love in another? Conflicting currents whirl me from side to side. Just as, when the whirling winds wage savage warfare, the contending waves drive the seas both ways, and the waters seethe in confusion: so my heart wavers; anger puts mother love to flight, then mother love, anger. Give way to love, my pain.” (Act V, ll 937-44). Neither Medea’s state of being, nor her feelings, nor her situation can be encompassed in a single word, image, or metaphor; rather, she is a multifaceted set of selves and thoughts, acting within the complex dynamics of her circumstances.
The nuances with which Seneca portrays the trials of Medea strikes a chord with that of American Hustle. As Prosser and Rosenfeld deal with the complicated fallout of being caught by Agent Dimaso, Prosser’s emotions and identity—like those of Medea—fluctuate and change in a situation that threatens not only her love, but her very survival. “…We are going to need another move, trust me. And you’re going to be thanking me,” she tells Rosenfeld as her normal American self, before shifting into the British accent of Lady Edith Greensley, her con identity. “[With British accent] The key to people is what they believe and… I want to believe that we were real… And I'm gonna take all of that heartbreak, and all of that sorrow, and I am going to use it. And I'm going to make Richie [DiMaso] think that I want him, and that I like him, and I’m going to be very convincing -- And I’m pissed at you…Maybe I do like him...Maybe I like him a lot. From the feet up, right...baby?” The viewer is left wondering (and the movie asks the questions) which of her identities are real and which of her actions reveal true sentiment. People can pretend. Emotions for one person may be channeled into another. However, as American Hustle and Medea show, it’s not even as simple as that. We’re all a multitude of selves, which, like Prosser’s, are often entangled with our emotions and actions into an inextricable web.
It’s not only Prosser and Medea that experience such tumult. Rosenfeld deals with his own emotional and identity issues, attempting to reconcile a past love, his wife Rosalyn, with his new love, Prosser, as well as grappling with his responsibilities as a father and the guilt of betraying a friend. At one point, Rosenfeld explains to Agent DiMaso, “That’s the way the world works. Not black and white as you say. Extremely grey.” His identity, like Prosser’s, like Medea’s, cannot be hung on a single tack. He struggles to know what to do in his situation, pulled first in one direction (leave the country with your lover), then in another (stay to provide for your wife and son). And that’s the point, isn’t it? Life is tangly. Things are unclear. The vague nature of truth and reality can be maddening, yet are rendered so well in both these works.
By viewing American Hustle through the lens of Medea, we are able to see depictions of life’s complexities and complications that resonate across a time span of two thousand years and ask such fundamental questions as: Why do we act the way we do? And, how do we end up in such muddled situations? And, inevitably, what does it mean to be human? A two thousand year gap in time and these works still resonate with each other, revealing a shared humanity. Shared not only with those people living over two thousand years ago asking the same questions, but also to all the readers, voyeurs, and interpreters through the millennia up to today. We are complicated beings with complicated histories in complicated situations that cause us all to act so…human. And, as humans, despite our differences, we share so, so much. So read, gaze at, think about the Classics. You’ll be surprised at how far their ensnaring tendrils reach out into the everyday moments of your life. And you’ll be enriched for it.